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We Watched the Ghosts of Google Street View Come to Life

Photo: Derek Mead

Paolo Cirio brings ghosts to life. At least, he pulls them out of their eternal resting places in the digital expanse of Google Street View and paints them into three-dimensional reality. Since last year, the Turin-born artist has been creating life-sized portraits of pedestrians, city-dwellers, and anyone else caught by the roaming eye of Google's slow-cruising surveillance mobiles. The ghosts have haunted the streets of London, Berlin, and New York City.

It's a blunt but clever undertaking. Cirio scans Street View for locations or people he finds interesting, settles on a subject, and prints them out on a large sheet of poster paper. He then takes the inevitably blurry and pixelated person and slathers them onto the exact spot where they've been immortalized on Street View—thus becoming a real-life Street Ghost. Viewed on the computer screen, it can be hard to tell the Street View still from the physical apparition. 

The work has alternatively received an enthusiastic response from fans who cheer the conceptual statement, and has been the center of controversy in places where blanket surveillance and blatant privacy invasion are more contentious than here in the United States, where we're more eager to trade online security for convenience. 

I was introduced to Cirio's work last month, so I sent him an email to learn more. It just so happened that he was gearing up to do a new round of "interventions," as he termed them, and was about to breathe life into a few new ghosts in NYC. Naturally, I asked if I could tag along. He was a bit hesitant at first—the ghosts are technically graffiti, and are considered vandalism—but he agreed, and we were soon watching on as he put up his ghosts on some of Brooklyn's busiest intersections. 

Cirio in Brooklyn, by Derek Mead

We met Cirio at an L stop in Williamsburg, where he was carrying a canvas shopping bag stuffed with rolled up ghosts, and decided to have a quick drink before embarking—it was still early, the streets still crowded. Even the least destructive graffiti is punishable as criminal mischief in New York, and the sentence is commensurate with the amount of property damage done—a max of four years in jail for property damage that costs more than $250. So, to buy some time, we ducked into a bar to talk about the genesis of Street Ghosts, the project's implications, and its future. 

When they debuted last year, Cirio's ghosts were the subject of newspaper articles, blog posts, and a range of discussion, especially in Germany, where lawmakers spent 2010 lambasting privacy concerns around Google Street View. Cirio put up some ghosts in Berlin shortly after an opt-out law was passed, he says, which reignited a debate about digital privacy there.

"I didn't expect it was really a great idea," Cirio says, sipping a beer. "People overreacted. The media overreacted."

And that's part of his intention, of course—the real-life iterations of the ghosts serve as a reminder that Google stores their digital counterparts online, permanently. 

"They're a specter from the archive of Google," he says. "These companies keep this data forever, even when we die. And they commercially exploit it." Indeed, Cirio sees the ghosts he puts up as victims—and, as actual ghosts.

"They come from the past," he says. "They are ghosts, casualties of an infowar or cyberwar between corporations that want to collect data and the government. They are victims of these two agents." 

We make for the first spot Cirio had picked out to put up a ghost: a temporary plywood wall erected around a construction site on a mostly deserted, soon-to-be residential street. It's surprising just how simple the process is. He carries the rolled up ghosts under his arm, gives the scene a quick survey, and unfurls the scroll. With barely a glance to see if anyone's coming, he's off. 

Photo: Derek Mead

He sizes up the location, glancing at a printout of the Google Street View portrait. Once he's determined how to get the real life simulacrum to mirror its digital twin, he coats the back of the poster with wallpaper paste and maneuvers the ghost into place. 

The whole endeavor takes no longer than a few minutes, but the result is striking. The pixels of the digital entity, a denim-clad man who seemed to have looked the Google Car in the eye as it drove by, bleed into the real-life surrounding with an eerie familiarity. We've seen humanoid images frozen in place like this before a million times, but not here. 

Photo: Derek Mead

The ghosts tend to last longer in Google's database than they do on IRL streets. Sometimes they're taken down the next day, sometimes they last as long as two or three months. Rarely longer than that. 

The only thing Cirio says he worries about is the people he unwittingly pastes onto the walls of the real world. But he says he's never gotten a complaint, and that he's received numerous requests from people who've found themselves on Street View to put them up in their neighborhoods. 

"I get lots of letters from people saying, 'do me!'" he says. Regardless, he rationalizes erecting guerilla representations of strangers by pointing to the work's message. Since their Google dopplegangers are a lot more permanent online, if they don't like them in the real world, that discomfort should carry over into the digital one.

Since 2008, Google has attempted to combat privacy concerns by blurring the faces of those depicted on Street View. But Cirio says it's "amazing" how clear many of the faces still are, despite those alleged efforts. 

Photo: Derek Mead

Ghost number two is even better, maybe my favorite of the night. A woman caught crossing the street, wearing sunglasses and headphones, carrying a plastic shopping bag and checking for oncoming traffic. She inadvertently seems to radiate the innocent, casual indifference to being preserved in digital amber that most of us share. 

This time, a few groups of people pass by, slowing to watch Cirio work. He pays them no mind, and carefully arranges his ghost. Less than 10 minutes later, the ghost is up.

Photo: Derek Mead

Cirio has a history of digital activism. He built an algorithm to auto-click ad links on his personal blog as part of an art project he designed to see how long it would take to make enough income from his blog bot alone to buy a share of Google stock. He was rewarded with a cease and desist from the company, he says. And since he'd dabbled in street art as a kid, doing graffiti in Italy, the Street Ghosts project was a natural progression for his forays into digital art.

He's not trying to break any laws here, he says, but he does enjoy pointing out how muddy the whole situation is that it illuminates.

"There's the issue of copyright. Who actually owns these images? These ghosts?" he asks.

To heighten the satirical import, and maybe to be safe, he includes a watermark of the Google logo on the work, he says.

The last Google ghost conjuring of the night is the riskiest. We head to Bedford Avenue in the middle of Williamsburg, where Cirio wants to put a small ghost up across the street from the busy L stop there. Two NYPD cars are parked across the street, and he walks over to see if they're empty. The cops come out of the falafel joint nearby and meander back to their cruiser. We wait for them to take off, and Cirio gets to work.

Photo: Derek Mead

A crowd idly looks on as he unrolls the poster, slathers the paste, straightens the image next to an Arcade Fire ad put up in much the same fashion. No one says anything, few look surprised. And then it's there. Part of the tangible landscape, a ghost in the background.

Photo: Derek Mead

Nobody recognizes what it is. And that's a semi-ironic factor in Cirio's work. It's typically not until he uploads photos of his work and pairs them with the Street View originals that it makes its impact. Once the word's out, blogs, activists, and reporters love it—when they can look at it online.  But in the real world, no one notices. 

Not even Google, evidently. One of his earlier ghosts—also on Bedford, coincidentally—was still in place when a Street View car rolled by and photographed it. Now there's a ghost of a ghost on Google Street View. 

"I would say Google takes pictures of itself!" Cirio says.

Image: Paolo Cirio

There's no end in sight for the project, which is supported partially by Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology center where Cirio was until recently a fellow. As the requests continue to pour in, and the demand for more Street Ghosts continues to rise, Cirio plans on bringing his experiment to new locales. 

The following weekend, Cirio would do a couple more interventions, and Brooklyn would get itself a few more ghosts.

Image: Paolo Cirio

He adds all the ghosts to a map that's ever more crowded with markers (it's a Google Map, naturally), so the public can track down the interventions and visit them in person.

The next markers slated to be added to the ghost map above will be in San Francisco and Hong Kong.

"It's become like a game," he says. "You want to see it everywhere. It's like my conquest of the world!"

Our night with Cirio ends without any arrests—a fact driven home when an NYPD car pulls up to our corner right as he steps away from his last ghost.

"Good timing," he says, grinning. "But let's maybe move out of here."

We part ways a few blocks later. He seems wearied but excited, adrenaline giving way to satisfaction. Yet his enthusiasm for the success of his project is tempered whenever conversation turns to the ghosts themselves. He does sincerely hope that his work will help awaken more citizens, as he describes it, to how their likenesses and online profiles are being exploited for profit by commercial giants like Google that people casually trust to vanguard their identities. Google, albeit indirectly, is making money off of their images—and making ghosts out of them in the process.

"They are random victims," he says. "Just totally random. They are just walking in the street and they're killed by the camera."

This post originally appeared on Motherboard.